When this first novel by a now 22-year-old New South Wales writer won the Australian/Vogel Award in 1981, the judges called it ""a brilliant novel by any standard."" American readers will find it not so much brilliant as affecting and pretentious by turns; still, most will respond warmly to the author's rich descriptions of small-town family life in the Australian outback and to the novel's fine and touching (though often rococo) delineation of the end of a small boy's childhood dreams.James Oxford ""Peanut"" Delarue is the verbally precocious five-year-old son of a small businessman in Boomeroo, Australia, and he has a decision to make: whether to give up his invisible best friend, Jack Rivers, before he begins to go to school. Although Jack Rivers is the cleanest, bravest, smartest ""mate"" a boy has ever had, Peanut is keenly aware that, once the two of them venture out into the rough-and-tumble town, Peanut won't be able to defend Jack against the children's and townspeople's mockery; the warmhearted Mrs. Delarue, after all, has always been Jack's real protector. Before school starts, Peanut's older sister launches a campaign to send Jack Rivers into exile, and when the campaign succeeds, Jack is gone, Mrs. Delarue is lonelier than she was, and Peanut has unexpectedly gained a new and thrilling ""mate"": his gruff father, who's never been able to understand Peanut's special bond with Jack. Dense prose, elaborate punning and self-conscious bawdiness at times almost snuff out the reader's pleasure in this simple but shapely and deeply felt tale of growing up--almost, but not quite. Altogether, this is a promising first novel in a trilogy about life in Boomeroo; the second and third novels will be welcome if they have an equivalent emotional resonance, and even more welome if they are more simply written.